Covid-19 has been the single biggest hit to the bottom line of the airline industry in recent times.
IATA, the International Air Transport Association, estimated last week that the pandemic would cost the sector as much $157bn, much worse than previously estimated.
The collapse in passenger demand wasn't just the result of government-mandated restrictions. Official curbs, quarantines and working-from-home mandates made it far more difficult to travel, but passenger numbers continued to suffer even after restrictions were loosened over the summer. This is because fears about the ease of catching the virus while in the air continued to linger.
To raise confidence, airlines have implemented numerous risk-reduction measures, albeit within the usual cost-benefit parameters. Such measures (often also government-mandated) include mask-enforcement, socially distanced seating and in some cases (but not always!) passenger symptom-screening on entry to the aircraft.
The big question facing the industry now is whether to follow such steps to their apparently logical conclusion and make vaccination mandatory.
On that front, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce caused an uproar online last week when he declared airlines across the world should consider enforcing "no-vaccination no-fly" policies to get the industry going again.
He told Australia's Channel 9: "We are looking at changing our terms and conditions to say for international travellers, we will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft." He added that he believed such requirements would become commonplace.
One might see Qantas as particularly well-placed to take the lead on such a strategy – not least because its brand is so closely associated with safety, as made famous by Dustin Hoffman's character's insistence to only fly Qantas in the 1988 film Rain Man.
But this bid to drum up passenger count by pacifying the overly fearful who might otherwise still avoid air travel instead went proverbially viral among another equally fearful demographic, the anti-vaxxer brigade.
Unlike the Covid fearful, whose core anxiety arguably stems from the belief that nature can be more dangerous than the scientific institutions we have created to help us navigate those risks, anti-vaxxers' fears originate from a distrust in the authorities we have positioned in such roles. Overall, it's fair to generalise that while the first group prefers to trust in institutionally sanctioned interventions that promise to keep the bad bits of nature at bay, the latter cannot be sure such institutional processes haven't been corrupted, and thus require much greater proofs and/or checks and balances so as to be persuaded that these authorities are acting in their interests.
The psychological split between the two groups is reminiscent of the great social divide observed by economist Thomas Sowell in the book . The book explains how two opposing views of human nature's potential -- the unconstrained and constrained vision -- dictate the make-up of any particular political economy.
As per the Wiki, the unconstrained vision relies heavily on the belief that human nature is essentially good. This leads to a frustration with decentralised processes and/or impatience with processes designed to constrain human action, such as checks and balances.
On the other side there is the constrained vision. This, conversely, relies on the belief that human nature is "essentially unchanging and that man is naturally inherently self-interested". Those who favour such a vision prefer society be full of systematic processes of the rule of law and experience of tradition. Importantly, they believe "compromise is essential because there are no ideal solutions, only trade-offs."
As Sowell notes about the constrained group (among whom he counts the Founding Fathers):
In the constrained vision, where trade-offs are all that we can hope for, prudence is among the highest duties.
In the current scenario, the constrained group's tendency to err on the side of prudence regarding the fallibility of mankind might nudge them towards doubt about any socially constructed solution to the virus.
Anti-vaxxer sentiment appears to be on the rise (alongside anti-lockdown sentiment too). Given the potential preponderance of the constrained group in society, are the likes of Qantas favouring one anxiety over the other? And in so doing, are they creating a negative feedback loop that inadvertently feeds the anti-vaxxer cause? Which leads to our final question: does demanding vaccine certificates actually make business sense?
A battle of two different risk perceptions
It's important first to understand what people really mean when they refer to the anti-vaxxer - or the milder "vaccine hesitancy" - problem.
Is a Covid anti-vaxxer really the same thing as a conventional anti-vaxxer? We would argue no.
The conventional anti-vaxxer rejects immunisation in the face of many years' worth of research, evidence and social practice on the view that even an infinitesimally small risk of a bad reaction is a risk too much.
The rationale of many Covid anti-vaxxers is quite different. Some have long put their trust in science, including vaccines and all sorts of other institutional processes. Some would in other circumstances happily take the vaccine, just not necessarily on this occasion.
This erring on the side of caution relates mostly to concerns that the vaccine's swift turnaround may have led to accidental oversights on safety and still unknown side-effects. There are also fears based on the fact that some of the vaccines use mRNA technology, which is novel and never approved for humans until now. It's a game theoretical process. Many would be happy to take the vaccine once more substantial safety evidence from trials comes in. For now, they would prefer to sit on the sidelines.
Mandating vaccines broadly or even for certain social activities, however, makes that procrastination less feasible.
The view of some anti-vaxxers as rational opportunists understandably grates with those who are more inclined to the unconstrained view of the world. To their mind, the anti-vaxxer represents an ignorant and selfish force, which undermines the system's response to the problem. Derisory comments across Twitter highlight the thinking.
"I presume there is a negative correlation between income and being anti-vaxxer (through education for ex) so that lost business maybe is not that large?" one commenter noted to Alphaville this week. The less measured end of Twitter was even more blunt. As they put it: "Antivaxxers are pure d1ckhe4ds".
This, we think, misunderstands the mentality of those who have concerns over taking this specific vaccine. It is not a question of ignorance, but of personal choice, and of balancing the various trade-offs based on their interpretation of risk factors unique to themselves. In doing so, some will reach the conclusion: "I'm not anti-vaccine, but since I'm also not high Covid risk, I'm also not going to be first in line."
That's not ignorant. That's game-theoretically rational even if it is destabilising to collective systems.
For context, it's important to bear in mind that anti-vaxxers are not the only ones to over-estimate risk. Even on an institutional level, events with seemingly minor risks attached, such as sending small children back to school, were banned in some places – such as in some US states -- until very recently. Many politicians rightly critiqued this back-to-school hesitancy as well.
At the same time, what should be reassuring is that those who are more fearful of the disease than the vaccine (or for whom the downside risks of the latter are lower than of the former) can be immediately protected by it irrespective of whether others take it or not.
A mandate with a Streisand effect
Scientists estimate that a take-up of between 60 and 80 per cent can achieve herd immunity. Until we know what the voluntary take-up will be, it is less than prudent to talk about mandatory vaccination. Indeed, this writer is going to argue it is suboptimal.
The tendency of the constrained to fear power due to its corrupting nature leads to a scenario where the more the powerful push for a certain outcome, the more distrusting and suspicious the constrained become of it.
This, in turn, can lead them to double down on their distrust. In the worst-case scenario, it can fuel paranoia that shifts anxiety beyond accidental safety oversights and over to suspicions of wilful negligence or even conspiracy to injure.
We are now at a critical point, both in stamping out Covid-19 and maintaining social cohesion. It is therefore essential to chuck carrot-and-stick thinking in the bin in favour of more nuanced reverse-psychology tactics.
Emphasis on voluntary take-up as an act of public duty is far more likely to be effective among those with a penchant for expressing their virtues publicly. Another tactic could involve celebrities, heads of state or other influencers leading the charge to take the vaccine, and in so doing, reassuring the public. If all else fails, the public messaging could resort to a bit of mental trickery, like pointing out that "the powers that be" -- if they really are as corrupt as feared -- probably anticipated that their poisonous vaccine would be rejected by the very troublesome and rebellious individuals they wish to suppress. And if that's the case, perhaps being anti-vaccine is falling for a double bluff trap?
But does it make commercial sense anyway?
According to Hubert Horan, an airline industry analyst, little of Qantas' assessment will have focused on liability.
Under the Montreal Convention, most carriers are not responsible for a passenger being exposed to a well-publicised risk. Liability only comes about if personal injury is related to an unusual or unexpected event – which at this point, catching Covid-19 is not. "Lawyers have crafted conditions of carriage and international treaties to essentially eliminate any airline legal risk short of wilful extreme negligence," he says.
There is also a question to be asked about why an airline ought to ask for confirmation of vaccination against Covid but not of Tuberculosis, which killed 1.4m people in 2019 and is also very infectious and spreads similarly via speaking, coughing and singing.
The answer lies in what we call the Fight Club formula: take the number of flights, A, multiply it by the probable rate of exposure B, then multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlements, C. AxBxC=X. If X is less than the cost of enforcing and policing a vaccination certificate mandate, there is no point in implementing such a standard.
As tuberculosis is concentrated in less developed countries among people that seldom fly, B is too low to matter. In the case of Covid, where B is far higher due to the disease propagating among jet-setters, but C is zero, the equation changes.
And the determining factor for an airline will be whether the company believes the cost of implementing the standard will be less than the cost of putting off all those fearful passengers from travelling altogether. Qantas, as a commercial operator, has concluded that wooing those who fear dying from Covid is a better business move.
At the moment, that might be true. The fear factor is perceived to be so great, airlines have the impression that mandating vaccine certificates makes much more sense than not doing so from both a cost-benefit and PR perspective.
We, however, are not entirely sure this impression is fair. We believe it potentially underestimates the number of people who are more fearful of a vaccine than the disease. In the event anti-vaxxers actually outnumber the Covid fearful, that could offer a boon to any competitor who chooses to operate the opposite policy.
One last issue on liability: could it be reasonably argued by someone who experiences a life-changing side effect from a vaccine they were forced to take as condition of service, that it was the airline's fault they were damaged?
Lawyers we have spoken to were unclear about this at this stage. Certainly, the idea that some liability should be borne runs congruent to the logic that a restaurant or food-seller that fails to properly disclose allergic ingredients might bear responsibility in the event of a bad reaction. One might also look at the case of airport screening in the UK, where people fearing personal injury (like pregnant women worrying about miscarriage) have the right to request a body search due to the (minute) risk in using the X-ray machines.
What is clear is that commercial players will have to think long and hard about which group they should prioritise. But given the broad anxieties in play, as well as the potential negative consequences for all if anti-vaxxers dig their heels in, mandatory vaccine certificates may not be the best bet.
A solution that caters to all sorts might be a better bet.
- Financial Times